How McCain Lost His Brand

Illustration by André Carrilho

I have sat across from Chris Matthews enough times now, participating in that psychotropic ritual known as Hardball, that I thought I’d heard it all—but then the other night he uncorked a doozy that actually rendered me speechless. (No, that is not a misprint.) “Let’s start with John McCain,” he said to me on the air shortly after the first presidential debate between McCain and Barack Obama. “Do you think he was too troll-like tonight? You know, too much of a troll?” I laughed. “Seriously,” Chris went on. “Do people really want to put up with four years of that? Of [him] sitting there, angrily, grumpily, like a codger?”

As both a media figure and a human being, Matthews is sui generis—and yet what made his comments so remarkable was how unremarkable they were. In the past several weeks, the shift of press-corps sentiment against McCain has been stark and undeniable, even among heavies such as Matthews long accused by the left of being residents of the Arizonan’s amen corner. Jonathan Alter, Joe Klein, Richard Cohen, David Ignatius, Jacob Weisberg: all former McCain admirers now turned brutal critics. Equally if not more damaging, the shift has been just as pronounced, if less operatic, among straight-news reporters. Suddenly, McCain is no longer being portrayed as a straight-talking, truth-telling maverick but as a liar, a fraud, and an opportunist with acute anger-management issues.

In McCain-land, this turn of events has provoked a fit of press-bashing that recalls the complaints lodged, albeit less loudly and indiscriminately, by Hillary Clinton’s people. The New York Times, says McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt, is a “pro-Obama advocacy organization.” When Politico’s Ben Smith questions some of Schmidt’s (factually dubious, it turns out) assertions, a McCain press aide declares that Smith is obviously “in the tank.” The liberal media is ignoring Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, and the alleged misdeeds of Joe Biden’s son.

Many of these whinges are purely tactical, others rooted in a genuine sense of grievance. But what all of them ignore is the degree to which the McCain campaign has been complicit in squandering one of the most precious assets its candidate brought to the race: a media dynamic that had previously worked overwhelmingly to his advantage. Indeed, at this moment, McCain and his aides are perilously close to losing control of his public image, if it hasn’t been lost already—a development that, as much as the financial crisis, may ultimately be seen as having driven the final nail into his coffin.

It’s important to remember that just a few months ago, at the conclusion of the Democratic primaries, McCain and Obama stood on roughly level footing with the press. “They were both media darlings,” says Marion Just, a Wellesley professor and consultant to the Project for Excellence in Journalism who studies campaign coverage. “The salient question was which of them would benefit more in the general election.”

McCain’s darlinghood was largely a vestige of his 2000 race in the Republican primaries, when his challenge to George W. Bush and the GOP Establishment, his reformist stances, and, not least, his freewheeling open-access press policy on the Straight Talk Express earned him countless fans among inky-fingered wretches. He emerged from that campaign, despite having lost, as the most popular politician in the nation, and his defiance of Bush on matters such as torture, taxes, and campaign finance only enhanced his stature in the media as a different kind of politician. “His meta-narrative,” says Just, “is that he was authentic, a man of integrity, a man of high moral character.” Or, as McCain’s chief strategist, John Weaver, puts it, “John was the Good Housekeeping seal of approval in American politics.”

But in the middle of the summer, the McCain campaign took a series of steps that appeared on their face to be at odds with the candidate’s gold-plated brand. In the interest of greater message discipline, his advisers eliminated his running back-of-the-bus (or front-of-the-plane) bullshit sessions with reporters. And they turned sharply negative in their approach to Obama, hammering him with a series of ads—seen by some as trivial and trivializing, by others as racially coded, and eventually by most as unexpectedly effective—focused on his status as a celebrity unqualified to be commander-in-chief.

Much of this departure from the modus operandi of “the old McCain” was chalked up to Schmidt, who had run the Bush war room under Karl Rove in 2004 and who believed that running hard negative against Obama was McCain’s only chance to win. But many longtime McCain watchers say that the candidate’s own gathering sense of frustration made him ripe for such a change. “It offended him that Obama walked away from his promise to do town-hall debates—and that the press didn’t seem to care,” says Dan Schnur, McCain’s 2000 communications director. “And then he did a series of nontraditional campaign events, like his poverty tour, and was alternately ignored or mocked by the media. And my guess is that gave Steve much greater leverage in saying, ‘Let’s try a different approach.’ ”

Whatever the reasoning, the strategists behind McCain’s 2000 run, Weaver and Mike Murphy, immediately voiced their disquiet over the potential long-term damage to the image they’d so carefully crafted. “There is no brand in politics you can just put on the shelf, run a campaign totally contrary to it, and then take it down later and still expect people to believe it,” Weaver told me at the time. “I just hope it’s still there for them when they need it.”

To be fair, it’s easy to see why Schmidt and his allies might have expected the McCain brand—or, if you prefer Just’s phrase, his meta-narrative—to be everlasting. Over the past eight years it had proved durable, most of all with the press, which consistently saw McCain’s deviations from what were supposed to be his core beliefs as aberrations. The speech at Falwell’s university? The reversals on the Bush tax cuts and torture? The support for the teaching of “intelligent design”? All had been dismissed by the press corps as necessary hedges, as a matter of McCain doing what he had to do to win the GOP nomination.

But then came September—and everything changed. The selection of Palin. The lipstick-pig imbroglio. The ad accusing Obama of supporting the teaching of sex education to kindergartners, along with a slew of other spots rife with distortions and fabrications. Perhaps it was the sheer number of such incidents, perhaps the depth of their mendacity. But the meme began to take hold in the press that the “old McCain” was dead. Or perhaps that he had never existed in the first place. “There was a mismatch between the way he was behaving and the narrative the press had bought into,” observes Just. “It made reporters wonder, ‘Have we been had?’ And when that question starts being asked, it’s a very bad place for a candidate to be.”

Fueling that questioning behind the scenes, it should be said, were countless professional Republicans—some who’d always regarded McCain as a fraud, others who believed in him all too much. Taken together, they gave the press a permission slip to question McCain’s authenticity and integrity. And as that skepticism began to take hold, it effectively doomed McCain’s maneuvers during the financial crisis (the suspension of his campaign, the threat to pull out of the debate) to be greeted with disdain and suspicion by the media. “By the time the financial crisis hit, we were past the tipping point,” says a national reporter who covers McCain. “Lipstick on a pig and sex ed were the last straw for some of McCain’s old hands and media allies. And because of this cynicism, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt for his ‘suspension,’ and it was treated as the stunt it was.”

For McCain, seeing the press—“my base,” as he once famously put it—turn against him has apparently been more than painful. According to people close to the campaign, it accounts for much of the seething, simmering anger that he’s displayed of late on the hustings. And rather than attempting to mute that anger, Schmidt and his associates, with their attacks on the press, are only validating and even stoking it—with borderline disastrous results. The central memes that have always posed the greatest risk to McCain’s candidacy are that he’s dangerously erratic (the dark side of maverick) and that his notorious temper is forever threatening to explode. And, as evinced by the recent spate of stories about his sarcastic, cantankerous performance last week before the Des Moines Register editorial board (THE ANGRY WARRIOR? read the headline in a Washington Post blog), those two memes are now coursing wildly through the media’s collective bloodstream.

It’s possible, of course, that Sarah Palin’s debate performance—competent enough to relegate questions about her readiness and intellectual capacity to the back burner—may help McCain to find his way back to a happier place. But it will do little to alter the fundamentals of the race, which now tilt strongly in Obama’s favor. The financial crisis has not only put the economy front and center, but it has also raised the stakes of the election, thus making the kinds of attacks that kept McCain afloat in the late summer seem tactical and unpersuasive. Moreover, with the media filter where it is now, any wild-assed gambits that McCain undertakes are likely to be dismissed out of hand and vocally called out, thus diminishing their effectiveness.

The irony here is that, for so many months, the campaign being waged by Schmidt & Co. was viewed by the press as devious, sure, but deviously brilliant, delivering to McCain innumerable victories in the battle for the daily—and even hourly—news cycle. But presidential campaigns are perverse, quicksilvery things, and it appears that the very tactics that for a while gave McCain the faint hope of victory are now the main obstacle to any hope of a late-stage revival. Weaver and Murphy, it turns out, were right to worry. The new McCain may have won some news cycles, but he is losing the contest of the meta-narrative—and with it, perhaps, the election.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

How McCain Lost His Brand